What Do Great Scrum Masters Do?

Geoff Watts is one of the leading Scrum thinkers in the world, and one of the few to hold both the Certified Scrum Trainer and Certified Scrum Coach designation. He's also an instructor at Front Row Agile with a newly released online course, "Scrum Mastery: From Good To Great Servant-Leadership," based on his book of the same name. 

Geoff shares patterns that he has seen the good and the great servant-leaders (such as Scrum Masters) display in his time working with many Scrum teams. Here, we'll talk with Geoff about some of his concepts behind becoming a great Scrum Master. 

Tell us a little more about why you wanted to teach Scrum Masters how to be great. 

Geoff: There are loads of Scrum Masters out there, and still precious little actual guidance for how to do what is a really tough and largely undefined job. So I wanted to share some practical tips that people can use straight away to help become more effective. 

What about those people who have read your book already -- how can they learn from your online course?

Geoff: I’m very aware that people learn in different ways and I have been asked many times about the possibility of turning my book into an e-book or online video. So this is another way of learning for those that prefer a more visual and/or audio method. 

Having said that, some of the more pleasing and surprising comments have been from those who have read the book and taken the course. Many of them have said that it brings the book to life and helps explain points in a different way. 

Describe the training a Scrum Master can receive to push him or herself to greatness.

Geoff: In my course, I cover the main characteristics and skill sets that I have found in the truly great Scrum Masters; the ones who have inspired great agile teams to build great products. 

In fact, these characteristics have formed a useful acronym that the course has been built around. I’ve found that the best Scrum Masters tend to be RETRAINED:


There is a section in my course with videos dedicated to each of these characteristics.

If you had to pick one skill above all others that is most important for a Scrum Master, what would it be?

Geoff: That's a tough one, but I’m pretty sure the most important skill for a Scrum Master is listening. And, more specifically, to listen empathically; that is, to be able to listen without judgement or personal agenda and with the ability to understand that person’s point of view. 

Great Scrum Masters listen with a genuine curiosity and desire to understand and help. Even more than that, they listen with the intent of helping those talking to understand themselves. 

They listen to what is being said, what is being implied and what is not being said. This helps build a connection and rapport, and also helps them in one of their primary jobs: removing impediments to productivity.

You use the term “servant-leader.” What does that mean to you?

Geoff: Well a servant-leader is someone whose primary objective is to ensure that others are able to do their jobs. They exist first and foremost to help the progress and development of others. 

Scrum Masters fit this bill because they don’t really have a huge amount of personal responsibility. Product owners are responsible for ensuring that we are building the right product and the right features within that product. And the development team is responsible for ensuring that the product is being built correctly. 

The Scrum Master is there to ensure that both the product owner and the development team are able to do their jobs effectively. Part of that will be achieved in the short term by helping them use Scrum, but over time, the Scrum Master may actually guide the team past the need for a framework like Scrum.

And that is often the greatest test of a servant-leader: getting the team to the point where it is totally self-sufficient.

Will you do more online courses in the future?

Geoff: Absolutely. I’m convinced that this is a big part of the future. I’ve had to travel a lot in my job and I’m humbled that people regularly travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to come to my classes. But, there’s no real reason why that should have to be the case. 

This kind of medium allows me to potentially reach anyone who is interested without them having to travel or take days out of the office. I already have a couple more courses in the pipeline: one on retrospectives and one on coaching skills that I’m really excited about, so stay tuned. 

For more info from Geoff, check out free chapters of his online course on Front Row Agile, here. 

Agile Transformation: Tips for Organizational Change

Jason Little describes his career as helping organizations "discover more effective practices for managing work and people." He is the author of the book, "Lean Change Management: Innovative Practices for Managing Organizational Change," a speaker, agile coach, Certified Scrum Professional, ScrumMaster and Scrum Product Owner. 

In this interview, Jason reveals what to watch for when trying to implement agile into an organization -- especially in larger companies that value control and stability. Here, we'll dive into the concepts featured in his course on Front Row Agile: "Agile Transformation: Four Steps to Organizational Change." 

In your course at Front Row Agile, you talk about the idea that understanding your organization’s culture is a good start, but it may not be a good idea to intentionally try and change it. Why is that?

Jason: Despite the agile community’s consistent message that agile isn’t a quick fix, it’s still perceived as being one. The pace of change, disruption and innovation is constantly increasing, and agile isn’t going to undo years of cultural baggage and organizational debt in a short time period.

I mention it’s a good idea to understand what your culture is because it’s important to pick an approach that is more likely to work. That means in a “control” culture that values structure and stability, you may want to start with considering agile to be a new process. 

What I mean by that is approaching an agile transformation in this type of environment by leading with the agile values and principles might be perceived as “fluffy,” and it may turn people off. 

In this environment, people might need a bridge built between how their processes work today and what they might look like tomorrow. For example, larger organizations I work with have more governance in place so developing an “agile governance process” can be a good short-term strategy for people to figure out how to move forward. 

After they’ve seen how what they do works in an agile environment, then more focus on agile values and principles might be a good approach. 

You teach different options for how organizations can learn about what agile means before they get started. Can you elaborate on that?

Jason: Back in 2007 when I started with agile, there weren’t nearly as many options as there are today for learning about agile methods. I still see organizations using only training and certification as a way to learn about agile, which is one of many ways to get educated about agile.

The agile community has grown substantially since 2012, and there are numerous conferences, meetings and virtual learning opportunities.

One of my favorite education tools is to send people to agile coach camps of which there are many around the world. That is a great way to connect people in the organization to experienced agile coaches that they can learn from.

You stress the importance of retrospecting often in your course. How can larger organizations use this technique at scale?

Jason: I recommend conducting retrospectives at the team, management and organizational layer; this helps get people focused and aligned around the purpose behind transforming to agile in the first place.

I recently used that technique with an enterprise client. Their team wanted to know the answer to one question: After a year, do we want to keep going with agile?

I coached the internal coaching team lead on how to do a large-scale retrospective for 30+ teams, management and executives. The short version of the story is that the answer to the question was yes. Even with all the problems and pain, they wanted to keep going.

The interesting part of that exercise was how it was executed. I worked with the internal coaching team lead on how to do the technique, and she then coached the existing Scrum Masters and Kanban team leads to do that exercise with their teams. 

This way, there was no single bottleneck. We took full advantage of a network of people, and then the coaching team lead took all the data from the teams and compared it with the data from the manager and director retrospectives.

She found it to be a great deal of work, but well worth it in order to see where staff, management and executives were aligned or misaligned.

“Scale” often scares people, but it’s not difficult to do large-scale retrospectives. It simply takes a little more planning and coordination. 

Organizations often lose sight of how their journey towards agile is going because they get too caught up in the day-to-day challenges and organizational problems agile is exposing. Taking the time to stop and reflect shows a serious commitment by leadership to helping make agile work.

For more info from Jason or to get in touch, head on over to his website.

Creating Comfortable Workspaces for Agile Teams

Ilan Goldstein is an agile practitioner and thought leader based out of Australia, perhaps best known for his tips on "Scrum shortcuts," a compilation of ideas that became the basis for his published book: "Scrum Shortcuts Without Cutting Corners." 

Ilan talks a lot about the Scrum startup, and the elements that go into making Scrum adoption successful. At the foundation of this is team morale, and he believes that team dynamics and workspaces are the cornerstone for productivity in agile development.

In a field that often casts its professionals into lightless caves in order to toil away in solitude (often by the request of the developers themselves), Ilan argues this isn't always best for the Scrum team. We caught up with Ilan in this interview to hear more on his thoughts around creating a work environment that makes Scrum work better.

With new Scrum teams, how do you help shift the mindset from individual accomplishments or goals to doing what's best for the team?


Ilan: It really is incumbent on the business to communicate and reinforce what is truly important - the creation of quality, working products that delight customers.

Simply put, a product is not built by an individual, it is built by a team. As such, it needs to be appreciated that individual accomplishments are the building blocks that make up the overall team accomplishment; they are a means to an end. 

No doubt, the individual building blocks are still important but it is critical that they are all aligned and supporting one another to create something much bigger and more important then the blocks themselves.

You talk about the physical workspace impacting the Scrum team. Can you expand on that a little here?


Ilan: First, let me say that I couldn't agree more with the truism, "It's the small things that matter." You'd be surprised by how many retrospectives I've witnessed that have been dominated by concerns and complaints about the physical environment.

Whether it's a lack of meeting rooms, limited wall space or microwaves that were bought when Reagan was in office, these day-to-day annoyances can really drag on morale and lead to direct and indirect productivity loss. 

Some of the best environments I've seen haven't necessarily been slick, extravagant settings decked-out with multi-million dollar fittings complete with slippery slides and lava lamps. No, in fact, they've actually been rather economical and grungy; however, they got the basics right and in turn became super-productive yet really comfortable spaces. 

Now if I was to choose one key consistent element of the worst environments I've seen, I would say the least optimal environments are those that impose email as the primary method of communication. This imposition may be due to physical or cultural boundaries but irrespective, relying on an asynchronous and easily misinterpreted communication channel is not conducive to effective teamwork.

What are your tips for changing the way Scrum team members interact with one another if it's a less than friendly environment? 

Ilan: My solution to this problem is to avoid it in the first place. So how do you do this? Well, you hire the right people with the right attitude and you model the behavior that is expected.

I worry about trends in our industry where the focus is on hiring "rock stars" with a total focus and emphasis on technical brilliance as opposed to interpersonal brilliance. The latter brings out the best in others and will ultimately lead to happier and more productive teams.

For more from Ilan, check out his course on Front Row Agile: Scrum Shortcuts